The NJ Ultra course/setup as currently constructed at the Princeton Blairstown Center is exceptionally challenging. I would definitely not recommend this as someone’s first 100 miler or anyone looking for an easy buckle. Here’s a short list of what makes this race so difficult:
- Highly technical trails. While no worse than many other races on the east coast, there were rocks/roots pretty much everywhere.
- Lots of short, steep climbing. When combined with the first point, there really isn’t much smooth running available.
- Loop format makes it very easy to quit. Every 45-60 minutes you will run right by your car, which will begin taunting you to stop after several hours.
- Ability to drop down to a short distance makes it easier to quit. No one wants a DNF, but it becomes more palatable to say you finished a 100k, 50M, etc.
- Mid-Atlantic weather in April sucks. Rain and 40s is typical.
- Thirty hour cutoff is somewhat aggressive. Most races with similar elevation profiles give you 32 or more hours.
The above has lead to only 3 finishers of 30+ starters over the last 3 years. While not Barkley by any stretch of the imagination, it’s no walk in the woods either (well, it mostly is, but you get my point). Respect this race.
Even though there isn’t a ton of information available online describing the course, it was so well marked that it was impossible to get lost. Really, it was overmaked with ribbons and reflective tape easily visible standing anywhere on the trail. The course is made up of two loops: a 2.6 mile Woods loop marked with blue ribbons and the 2.4 mile Lake loop marked with pink ribbons. The Woods loop was shortened this year due to storm damage and in years past has been about a mile longer. Both loops start by going over the dam with the Woods loop peeling off to the right and the Lake loop to the left.
The Woods loop starts on a fire road for a quarter mile or so before turning right onto a trail. It’s a gentle increase in elevation until about the half mile mark, then you drop down into this valley. A nasty little climb back up and out follows after which the trail flattens out for a short spell. You drop down to the river next, which you cross on a wooden bridge. Across the bridge, you meet up with the Lake loop and both follow the river back up to the start/finish area. This is the second decent sized climb, which you will become intimately familiar with as you’ll do it 40 times.
The Lake loop is completely flat as it circles the lake, though the trails are probably the most technical of the whole course through the first section as there’s barely any flat places for you to set your feet down. About a half mile in you’ll reach a stream and have to decide whether to take the cable bridge, use a log, or just splash your way through the water. The trail gets more runnable after you cross the stream. About a mile into the loop you get to the road leading in and you run down that to the parking lot, turn right, and head back up into the woods. It’s fairly flat with very modest elevation changes (i.e. you can run them the first couple laps only) and then you descend quite a bit till you reach the river. You meet up with the other loop and follow the double blue/pink ribbons back to camp.
This is not the April weather I know
After a decent night’s sleep in my own bed, I drove the 2 hours up to Blairstown with my wife who would be crewing for me all day/night/day. We got there before registration opened up so hung out in the activity hall for a bit. Once they were ready, I went to pick up my bib and was surprised not to get one. Instead I got a timing chip to strap onto my ankle. They also handed out a really nice rain jacket that I’ll get lots of use out of going forward. It took me about 2 minutes to get my drop
bag box set up next to some picnic tables, then sat around for the next hour trying not to look as nervous as I felt.
Finally, the RD called us over to the starting line for the race briefing. He explained how the loops were set up and probably some other stuff, but I was so keyed up it was really all going in one ear and right out the other. I did manage to wish the other runners good luck before the final countdown. It was pretty comical how we all lined up. Or rather didn’t. If you do enough races, you get used to lining up a certain distance from the actual starting line. Not right on the starting line (that’s where the fast runners stand), but 10-20 feet back. Well, that’s exactly where all 11 of us were standing when we all heard “Go!”. There were so few of us doing the 100-miler that we all could have literally toed the line, however no one felt comfortable being there so instead we all crossed an empty 10 feet of space to start the race.
The first trip around the course was a getting acquainted session. Since you started and ended each loop the same way, I was worried about remembering which one I was supposed to be running and would end up repeating a loop instead of alternating. Oddly enough, I only had problems remembering the first 10-15 miles. Afterwards, I got into a rhythm and never had much of a problem. I didn’t have any time goals, yet was pleasantly surprised when I finished the first lap of the course in about an hour or 12min pace.
I had let the lead group go early on the first lap as that’s not a place I’ve ever belonged. About a mile into the second Lake loop though, I met back up with them. It was rather crazy not only for me to be up there, but for almost half the starting field (5) to be together 8 miles in. We splintered pretty fast though as one runner when on ahead and another runner (Jim) who had been with me off and on so far kept pace.
As the day progressed and loops started getting knocked off, the temperatures went from warm to hot to Africa hot. Tarzan couldn’t stand this kind of hot. And my pace quickly slowed with the rising temperatures. I was focused on taking it easy and just making it till nightfall, but it was getting harder and harder. I went from walking the uphills to walking some flats to walking the occasional downhill. It was complete and utter survival mode. Here I am 20 miles in and I’m starting to wonder if I’m even going to be able to finish.
The one nice thing about the shared half mile of the 2 loops is you get to see more runners than those doing your pace. Or at least, this is what I thought until I saw the lead guy (Nick) at mile 25 and realized he was now a half a loop ahead of me. Actually, that’s not entirely true. My first thought was that he was only 10% ahead of me and that if I could manage to maintain this pace, this would be my best UltraSignup rank ever (i.e. 90% vs. my normal 68%).
I was still running off and on with Jim this entire time, which was a new experience for me. I typically never last more than an hour or so at someone else’s pace, however he always just seemed to be right ahead or behind me throughout the day. He started joking that I should chase down the lead guy and I would respond that he had a better chance than me. Frankly, we were both just barely holding on through the heat. It was great to have someone to share the pain and suffering with and made it easier to endure. Finally, about 3pm clouds started forming and the temperatures began dropping.
It was right about mile 41, that Nick caught up to Jim and I putting us both a lap down. He was flying along and was quickly out of sight. The temperatures were slowly dropping and I was starting to feel better and better. I rolled out of the next aid station and was surprised to see Nick right ahead of me. Over the next mile, I slowly bridged the distance between us and caught up to him at the end of the road by the start/finish parking lot. We ran together for a bit and then I passed him heading into the mile 45 aid station putting me back on the lead lap or about 80-90 minutes behind. I wouldn’t see him again for the next 7 hours.
Into the night
As it began to get dark, the temperatures quickly dropped into the 40s. It seemed like every other loop, I was adding an article of clothing. From swapping into a long sleeve shirt then added another on top. Light knit gloves were soon exchanged for winter gloves and a ski hat and then a rain jacket over all. I didn’t have to bust out the hand warmers, but they were available if needed.
I ended up having three small issues throughout the night. Something’s always going to come up during a 100-miler and I was fortunate that nothing serious occured. The first problem was the batteries in my headlamp started running out after only a couple hours. I had a backup set of batteries, but I needed to make it past midnight for them to last. At night, you’ll notice your pace is directly proportional to the amount of light you have to see by so I was concerned I would end up completely walking. Luckily, my first set of batteries lasted long enough and using the second of three brightness settings the rest of the night got me to dawn in good order.
The second and more pressing problem was that I started running short on calories. I had been chugging an Ensure shake every 10 miles and supplementing with Mountain Dew, gummy bears, and whatever else seemed appetizing at the aid stations. By midnight, I was just reduced to the shakes which were only lasting me about 7-8 miles resulting in a couple mile bonk. Chicken broth, bananas, and gummy bears worked to supplement for a while, but they eventually stopped sounding like edible options. Eventually, I settled on sipping my shakes periodically and that did the trick for the rest of the race.
My last issue was the easiest to understand and the hardest to fix: I started getting drowsy. I had been up for almost 24 hours and (mostly) running for 18 hours. My normal solution (Mountain Dew) probably wouldn’t stay down and coffee didn’t seem much better so I just trudged forward as best as possible counting down the hours till dawn.
As I’m crossing the bridge finishing up a Woods loop at mile 77, I see five or six headlamps directly across the river on the Lake loop. It was quite the sight and a shock to see as there was only 8 or 9 runners left out on the course. I passed the first runner quickly and then the next several in rapid order. I was moving well and everyone was very kind to give me room and offer encouragement. The last pair of lights belonged to the leader (Nick) and his pacer. As I passed, I asked what mile he was on and he said he was at 80. This put me only a Lake loop or 2.4 miles behind and for the first time all day I began entertaining thoughts that maybe today was the day my dreams come true.
It turns out I didn’t need caffeine or the dawn to wake me up, just a little hope. I still kind of just trudging along (this was actually my slowest lap), but I was definitely starting to feel better. As I reached the parking lot during the next Lake loop, I looked over and saw Nick standing at the aid station with his crew around him. Somehow I had managed to knock another 20 minutes or so off his lead. When I got back to the aid station, the RD said Nick was 24 minutes ahead of me and this lit a raging fire in me. This was it. This was my opportunity to finally win a race. I was feeling strong and I was flying around the course. After finishing up the Woods loop, I was now only 10 minutes back. I kept looking ahead for any signs of Nick and his pacer, but didn’t catch them on the Lake loop. Lap 18 did end up being my fastest since lap 4 or 19 hours prior.
I had 10 miles left. I wasn’t spending any time in aid stations at this point. If I needed something, it was grabbed and I was gone in seconds. I wanted to leave nothing to chance and was pushing for all I was worth. I was screaming down the large hill early on in the Woods loop when it finally happened. I caught a toe (hard) and down I went. Miraculously, I happened to find one of the few sections of trails that weren’t completely covered in rocks and landed rather softly. I gingerly picked myself up and realized it might be wise to slow down a wee bit. I still had plenty of trail available to catch up. As I reached the bottom of the hill, I heard some voices and there Nick and his pacer were on the climb ahead. I caught up to them just over the top and he stepped off the trail as I approached. He very kindly congratulated me and mentioned how tough the night was. I assured him I wasn’t going much faster and we chatted for a minute or so before I moved ahead.
I tried to make a strong move and ran for all I was worth the rest of the loop. I wasn’t sure that Nick wouldn’t recover a bit and I wanted to give him no reason to think he could catch me. I continued pushing as hard as possible, but by the time I reached the last lap my legs were about done. My quads were just about blow from all the bombing downhill leading to many grunts and grimaces on my last Woods loop. As I entered my final aid station, I asked the RD how much time I had. He didn’t seem to understand me so I had to ask again. He gave me this baffled look before responding that Nick was walking it in. That he was spending lots of time in the aid stations and if I kept up, I might lap him. What? It took a moment, but it eventually sunk in that I was going to win my first race. I walked pretty much the rest of the way in and started to enjoy the moment.
And 25 hours 45 minutes after I begun the NJ Ultra, my dreams finally came true.
Strategies for finishing NJ Ultra 100
- Fully commit to the distance. If you give yourself any wiggle room to drop down to a shorter distance heading into the race, you’ll take it. You have to approach this like there’s only one race distance going on.
- Find your “too easy” pace. If there’s even a hint that you’re pushing things, you need to slow down.
- Minimize aid stations stops. Plan to stop only once per big loop. Three minutes times 20 laps is an hour you can’t afford.
- Have your backup nutrition plans (plural) lined up. Your initial caloric plan will probably stop working at some point and you’ll need several fallback options available to keep you moving forward.
- At night, dress like it’s 20 degrees colder than it really is. The risk of you getting too hot at night? 0.4%. Too cold? 68.5%. #statistics
- Multiple changes of clothes in case it rains. Similar to #5, it’s much easier to stay warm when you’re dry.
- Have trekking poles available. I didn’t need to use the ones I brought, however they would have been critical for the steep ups/downs if the trails were muddy.
Will I be back?
The RD asked me if I would return next year to defend my title and I laughed in his face (sorry, Rick!). It was just that in the immediate aftermath of finishing, the thought of returning and doing it again was the last thing I wanted to do. It was just a soul sucking experience. But after a couple days recovery? Well, let’s just say I don’t run 100s because they’re easy. . .